The Great Florida Outdoors: Tarflower

Dr. Robert Norman, Clinical Professor, Dermatology,
Nova Southeastern University

1. What is this flower? How did it get its name? Where does it normally live?

a. Scrub Plum
b. Tarflower
c. Scrub Buckwheat
d. Mock Bishop’s Weed
e. Chinese Violet

Tarflower (Bejaria racemosa also known as Flyweed, flycatcher family Ericaceae, the blueberry family) is a woody evergreen shrub that occurs naturally in scrub, pine flatwoods, and scrubby flatwoods and prefers dry, sandy soils. The plant grows 4-8’ tall with 2-6’ spread and has whitish undersides of the leaves and dark seed capsules. Tarflower is a native that’s found throughout the Florida Peninsula, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.

Studying the Tarflower is a wonderful lesson in ecology. On a sunny June day at Archbold Biological Station, I noted the plant’s fragrant and showy white to pinkish flowers. The plant’s common name derives from these sticky flowers that attract flies, bees, and other insects and then trap them with a glue-like exudate on the backs of its petals. On close inspection, I found a fly stuck on the back of one of its flower petals. The flower back acts as a kind of biological flypaper and researchers have noted that the tarflower’s sticky resin has the same strength as commercially available flypaper (T. Eisner and D. J. Aneshansley 1983).

Perhaps the tarflower traps insects like the fly that only want the sweet fruit and cannot contribute to helping to pollinate the plant. As my naturalist friend Jim Buckner wrote me in an email, the tarflower tries “to keep the selfish thieves out, while not wanting to discourage true pollinators. Some flies can be legitimate pollinators of some plants.” Conserving the intoxicating nectar to only invited guests ensures its survival.

Tarflower is noted to bloom in spring to fall but peaks in May and June. They produce a small, sticky capsule-like fruit that’s eaten by some wildlife including birds, butterflies, and bees.

What other actions can be seen on these flowers?

Walking gently on the surface of a tarflower was a green lynx spider, apparently not susceptible to the adhesive quality of the flowers. In fact, the flower provides an ideal setting for the lynx spider, allowing it plenty of food with little effort on its part.

Observing just one flower provides a great lesson in nature and ecology! And the way to see the flower is to get out and enjoy the Great Florida Outdoors!

Dr. Norman is an advanced master naturalist graduate of the FMNP program from UF and a board-certified dermatologist based in Tampa and Riverview. He can be reached at 813-880-7546.

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